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God save the Queen

If Diamond Lil is the grand dame of Atlanta drag, why can't she get a steady gig?

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But the city was in flux. The area around her shop became known as "the Strip," and the pioneers of the counterculture -- hippies, artists, activists and runaways -- migrated there. The Strip evolved into Atlanta's version of Haight-Ashbury, with headshops, flophouses and longhairs spilling over into Piedmont Park. The hippies scared away customers and led Diamond to close her fledgling store.

She soon learned that the dawn of the Sexual Revolution had its benefits, though. While drag shows were officially illegal, and any man caught wearing women's clothes could get hauled into jail, the burgeoning gay community was about to come into its own.

In 1968, Diamond's friend Chuck Cain asked her to headline a new drag show he was starting. Cain managed Mrs. P's, a small restaurant with a mixed-gay clientele in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel, and had worked out an "arrangement" with the cops. He could host drag shows there, but only on weeknights and he couldn't advertise it.

Mrs. P's was an unlikely performance space. The tiny supper club, with wooden booths and a $1.25 filet mignon dinner special, drew lunchtime crowds from the nearby Sears building (now City Hall East). At night it turned "sort of gay," Diamond says.

On opening night, Diamond was getting ready for her performance when she had a Gypsy Rose Lee moment. She hadn't thought about a stage name until the manager asked how to announce her just moments before she went on. People in town knew her as "Lil," so she just spat out the words without thinking: Diamond Lil.

The name -- an unintentional crib from Mae West -- stuck. The show drew a steady following, thanks to Diamond's heated renditions of R&B hits. She'd shimmy between the booths, mouthing the words to Motown records -- mostly Aretha Franklin, her favorite. After the bar closed for the night, most of the clientele would move to someone's private house party. Diamond would usually put on an encore performance there -- her "freelance work," as she calls it.

In the early '70s, Diamond moved her act to Sweet Gum Head on Cheshire Bridge Road, a cabaret/bar that became synonymous with Atlanta's burgeoning drag scene thanks to performers like Rachel Wells, Lavita Allen and Charlie Brown. The bar would be Diamond's off-again on-again home for the next decade.

But it was at the short-lived Club Centaur where Diamond developed her signature act. The Peachtree Street bar, now Touch of India restaurant, sat in the heart of the hippie district, and Diamond hired four of the longhairs to be her backup band. She'd tear through sweaty rock 'n' roll numbers with the flair of a white Tina Turner, but she also began to add her own songs to the mix, and eventually put out 45s of her most popular ditties. Among them was "Silver Grill Blues," which paid homage to the longstanding greasy spoon on Monroe Drive (hence the proclivity for dispensing chicken legs). Before long, it and other songs such as "Love Generator" and "Cabbagetown Katie" were playing on jukeboxes throughout the city. In 1984 she released a full LP of original material dubbed The Queen of Diamonds.

Though Club Centaur was only open six months, Diamond speaks of it as if she spent a lifetime there. She recalls the night a motorcycle gang descended on the bar, which drew a mixed straight and gay crowd. Everyone in the place held their breath to see if a fight would break out. But Diamond decided to have some fun with the ruffians, stepping off stage onto their table and drinking beer from their pitcher before throwing her dress in the air. The bikers roared with laughter.

There was another night when a fight did break out, and cops sprayed tear gas on the crowd. It was police harassment plain and simple, she says, and she wrote a column about it for the alternative weekly The Great Speckled Bird.

Other than occasional problems with the police, though, the city was amazingly accepting of gays then, Diamond says. And Midtown was a more welcoming place in general.

"You'd walk down the street and see people just hanging out on their porches," she says. "You could yell up and go smoke a joint or have a drink. It's just not like that now. ... All the old Southern glamour is gone."In her collection of carefully preserved photos and newspaper clippings from the era, Diamond Lil looks a little like Elizabeth Taylor, with a lusty Jane Russell slant. She calls her aesthetic "Hollywood sexpot," though several shots show an explosive Ziggy Stardust sensibility.

"I was way before Hedwig," Lil says. "She copied it, my glam look."

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